Roll the dice: In Jericho, Palestinians divided over possible reopening of casino

The Oasis Casino in Jericho was closed shortly after the start of the Second Intifada in September 2000. Could it reopen?

 The Oasis hotel in Jericho. (photo credit: KHALED ABU TOAMEH)
The Oasis hotel in Jericho.
(photo credit: KHALED ABU TOAMEH)

JERICHO – Employees of Hotel Oasis smile when asked about the possibility that the nearby casino will reopen soon.

Like many residents here, they also heard the news about contacts between the Palestinian Authority and Israel to reopen Oasis Casino, which was closed shortly after the beginning of the Second Intifada in September 2000.

“If true, this would be great news,” said Majed, a 36-year-old security guard at Hotel Oasis. “I saw something on Facebook about the casino, but I don’t know if it’s true. We hope that the tourists, including the Israelis, will come to Jericho.”

On Tuesday, Channel 12 revealed that the Israeli security establishment recently held “discussions to decide whether to allow Israelis to return to the casino in Jericho.”

According to the report, the decision at this stage is to not allow the Israelis to go to the casino, which is located at the southern entrance to Jericho, which is territory under the Palestinian Authority. “From time to time, discussions will be held to see if that’s possible,” the report added.

The Oasis hotel in Jericho. (credit: KHALED ABU TOAMEH)The Oasis hotel in Jericho. (credit: KHALED ABU TOAMEH)

Palestinian sources confirmed on Wednesday that the issue of reopening the casino had been raised during talks between senior Palestinian Authority and Israeli officials. The sources, however, said that it remains unclear whether the casino would reopen in the near future.

Inaugurated in September 1998, Oasis Casino was one of the biggest investment projects in the West Bank after the signing of the Oslo Accords between the PLO and Israel five years earlier. Initially operated by Casinos Austria International Limited, it employed more than 1,000 people and attracted thousands of Israelis every day.

The PA leadership dismissed criticism of the project at the time by arguing that only Israelis would be allowed to gamble.

“We used to have about 6,000 Israelis every day,” said Faisal, a 56-year-old security guard who worked at the casino. “The Israelis, especially religious Jews, love casinos. They used to spend a lot of money at the casino. Many also used to stay in the hotel.”

Currently employed as a security guard at the hotel, Faisal said that Jericho needs Israeli and foreign tourists. “We are now renovating the hotel because we are expecting tourists at the beginning of March,” he said. “We have many Israeli Arabs who come to Jericho every day, but the casino is a different story. I remember at the end of the day we used to fill suitcases with hundreds of thousands of dollars.”

Faisal also heard the news about the casino’s possible reopening. “Everyone here is excited,” he remarked. “It will be very good for the economy. The casino has been shut for 20 years now.”

But Jihad Abu al-Asal, PA governor of Jericho and the Jordan Valley, said it was “premature” to talk about reopening. He hasn’t been consulted about the reported contacts between the PA and Israel regarding the casino.

“First, we want the situation to be more positive and stable in Jericho,” Abu al-Asal emphasized. “It would be problematic to reopen the casino as long as the security situation is unstable. In order to reopen the casino, you need security and stability. I don’t want to see the casino reopened while the Israeli army is continuing to launch daily incursions” into Jericho.

The governor said that the issue of the casino should be tied to progress in the peace process with Israel.

“Before we talk about reopening the casino, we need to see progress in the peace process,” he argued. “Our mission is to ensure the safety of anyone who enters Jericho. I don’t believe it is possible to reopen the casino in light of the [Israeli] incursions and assaults.”

Abu al-Asal revealed that the PA has received requests from some Israelis to enter Jericho. “But how can I guarantee the safety of any Israeli who visits Jericho when they (the Israelis) are continuing with their daily incursions and killings?” he asked. “When they do things like this, what do they expect – that I will hand a flower to the Israeli who enters Jericho? Before we talk about such matters, the Israelis need to sit with the Palestinian leadership to talk about ways of advancing the peace process.”

Several residents here who said they opposed the reopening of the casino were wary of discussing the issue with journalists.

One shopkeeper in the main square of the city said that many residents were angry when they heard about the possibility that the casino would resume operations.

“This is a crazy idea,” he retorted after identifying himself as Abu Adel. “The Palestinian people will be very angry if the casino is allowed to reopen. How can anyone talk about a casino when people are being killed almost every day by the Israeli army?”

“Look what’s happening in the east Jerusalem neighborhood of Sheikh Jarrah,” he said. “Israel is trying to expel people from their homes – and now they want us to welcome Israelis in Jericho?”

Ibrahim, a 32-year-old cab driver who shuttles between Jericho and the nearby town of Al-Auja, expressed outrage when asked about the casino issue.

“The situation now is very different,” he said. “When the casino opened more than 20 years ago, everyone thought that it was part of the peace process and that it would help boost the economy. But we quickly realized that the project was launched to enrich a small group of senior officials in the corrupt Palestinian leadership. And since then, there has been no peace process.”

Ibrahim said that even if the PA decides to reopen the casino, the Palestinians will come out against the move. “We don’t want to see Israelis in Jericho,” he added. “We have suffered enough, and it’s time for our people to stand up and say no to all these suspicious projects.”